We are continuing in our worship series, Divergent, and we are asking the question. How is Jesus asking us to diverge from the normal path, the normal ways of this world. Last week Jesus told us that we who follow him are salt and light. This is not something that we aspire to or become if we are good enough, work hard enough, or mature enough. Jesus tells us that were are salt and light right now. In other words, through our lives we help to preserve others around us as salt preserves meat and act as a beacon, like a lighthouse, pointing people to God. None of this is any good if the salt stays in the cupboard or the light is hidden under a bowl. God had selected Israel to be the example and to point the nations toward God. Ultimately, they remained isolated and hidden when they weren’t copying the other nations, rather than leading them to God. Jesus is telling the people to release their light. The time is now because he has come. He is starting a revolution.
We are very early in Jesus’ ministry. He has pronounced the coming of the kingdom. He has called his first disciples. He has healed some people, and they, folks from all over, are following him … literally. John the Baptist has been arrested, and people are waiting for a Messiah, a king, and Jesus is looking like a good fit for the bill. The crowds follow him up a mountain. Jesus addresses the people. What does he say? Does he rally them? Does he incite them to rebellion? It wouldn’t have taken much.
He starts by blessing the least likely, the poor and the marginalized, not the rich and elite from Jerusalem. He reminds them of their calling as Israelites to be a light to the nations. He goes on to talk to them about anger, loyalty, and retaliation. He could have whipped up their righteous anger into a fighting force that combats injustice and exacts revenge, but he does … the opposite. The question is after hearing this sermon is why Jesus had crowds following him at all? But, they had a taste of the kingdom of heaven. There were people there who had been healed. They knew that Jesus had great power. They had experienced the good news of the kingdom, and now, they were willing to risk the response of Rome to follow Jesus.
In last week’s passage, Jesus told the people (and us) that they are salt and light, but how are we supposed to do that? What does it look like? In this next, section, called the antitheses, Jesus tells us…
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard it said … but I tell you …”, the antithese, the contrasts. Today’s passage is fifth in the list of six. They can make it sound like Jesus is taking a law and replacing it with another, but a few verses earlier he said, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (5:18) Really it is intensification. And that can be the stumbling block, the trap for many. We hear them and this intensification, and we think, Well that’s impossible. I can’t do that, and we dismiss it. We concentrate on the teachings we like.
For a long time, before I was a follower of Jesus, believer, or whatever you want to call it, I always thought of this passage as advocating being a doormat for Jesus. How could any self-respecting person be okay with instructions, commands, like this? This passage and ones like it kept me from the faith for a long time. Then, I didn’t think about it at all for quite a while, years. I forgot about it really. Then, one day a new perspective was presented. These were not doormat for Jesus verses at all, quite the contrary. They were non-violent ways of responding to attacks, especially for the marginalized, who didn’t have the power to resist in a direct way. Someone being hit, would likely be backhanded the way a superior would do to an inferior. Offering the other cheek implies the two people were equals. If two people were in court, perhaps to settle a debt, they may want the shirt off your back. In a society where most men only had two garments, giving the coat or cloak as well would leave the person naked in the public court. In that culture the person who caused someone’s nakedness was shamed even more than the naked person. Then, a Roman soldier could conscript a man to carry their armor a mile, but no more. Think about Simon having to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to the crucifixion. Going the extra mile would not only confound the soldier but could get him in trouble. What I learned in the end was that there were ways of standing up for one’s self and asserting their dignity while shaming the adversary or forcing them to recognize them as a fellow human on a more equal standing. It could even turn the tables and teach them a lesson. I liked that much better from a self-respect perspective.
Now, many years later, I am leaning back toward that first interpretation that I hated so much, and it doesn’t bother me … at least in theoretical terms as a thought experiment. The truth is that I am disturbed by the idea of Jesus using manipulation to shame people. However, these do not advocate being a doormat for Jesus. It is also not about teaching someone a lesson or shaming them into anything. So, what are they about?
Are they about new rules, new commands that Jesus is giving over and above the Law? Are they to replace the Law? These are all 613 commands of the Law in the order that they are listed in the Old Testament, [unveil the list] 613 commands. To put that number into perspective, if every command were represented by a day, you would go for a year and a half before you would get through them all. Now, you wouldn’t interact with every law on a routine basis. Some laws only applied once a year or once every seven years. You may never encounter the circumstances of some of them, but still 613. That’s a lot, as you can see. And, at least as it applied to a particular person it is a checklist. If I check them all off as applying them correctly, I’m in. If not, I’m out. And, it is an all or nothing proposition I can make amends by making a sacrificial offering, through the rituals of the Day of Atonement, and so on, but the bottom line is that humans are not able to keep the checklist perfectly. In our broken state, it isn’t possible for us. We can’t even keep the top 10. How many of us say that we’re fine when we’re not? Lie. And of course, that is just one example. Our inability to keep from sinning, despite how hard we try, is why we need Jesus so desperately.
What the law does is set a bar. It has to be considered in the context of its time and the cultures and religions that surrounded Israel. It offers radical ideas about the importance of respect, taking care of the other, taking care of the earth. In many areas it demonstrates that our relationship to the world and the people in it is supposed to reflect God’s relationship to us. That is why if Israel followed it or kept it, they would be a light to the nations pointing them to God.
So, is Jesus setting the bar higher? In these contrasts, Jesus invites us to consider the whys of the commands, but they do not form an expanded or new checklist. These are just as impossible as the old ones, actually more so. Then, what are they about? In the passage before these contrasts that we looked at last week in verses 13-20, the disciples were told that they were salt and light (and by implication, we also are salt and light). As such they were (we are) preservers of a holy life (as salt is a preserver of meat) and beacons of light pointing people toward God. How do we do that? These antithesis, these contrasts are Jesus’ answer.
In today’s passage we are invited to consider what is God’s idea behind the law restricting retaliation to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? At the time this law was given, it was a radical idea to limit retribution for a wrong in this way. Honor and vengeance required an escalation of the violence or the hurt to the other person or the family. Jesus says that law was good, but really that is just the beginning. Not only should you not strike back when someone strikes you, do not seek retaliation, but actually a response to an offense should be overwhelming in its graciousness. We are to act as people living in the kingdom despite the fact that we are still here, as a way of pointing people toward God.
All six of these contrasts taken as a whole are examples. In a way they are like parables. Jesus gives these extremes to surprise you and get you thinking. The thinking is revolutionary. It is not a matter of rules, but rather an attitude of relating to other people. Choosing our actions for their good over and above our rights. So, not only for these specific examples, but in all situations, what results in the building up of a person rather than a tearing down. What is most beneficial for them … Even if they don’t realize it or appreciate it? In our role as salt and light, disciples are to use these examples as inspiration for the many different situations that we encounter.
The commands are not a checklist for morality, but pointers towards a flourishing life that allows us to have a relational and transformative encounter with all whom we meet. They are not intended to be burdensome but to give life.
This does not mean that staying in a physically abusive relationship. Jesus said turn the other cheek, not allow yourself to be struck repeatedly your whole life. This also does not mean that we are to sit idly by when it comes to protecting the weak and oppressed and confronting the structures of injustice. Disciples must be ready resist evil wherever we find it, as it says in our baptismal vows.
However, it is a completely different thing when we are called to set aside our own rights for the good of others. It is considering the needs of the other before myself. The Apostle Paul talks about this in a number of places such as:
- 1 Corinthians 8:9, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Remember, that when you see “stumbling block” in the Bible think more like a deadly trap. Like a block that keeps someone from life with Jesus. They stumble right over a cliff.
- In Romans 14:19, Paul says, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification.”
- And continuing in 15:2, “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.”
“Whatever situation you’re in, you need to think it through for yourself. What would it mean to reflect God’s generous love despite the pressure and provocation, despite your own anger and frustration.” (NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part 1, pg 52) Through this attitude we are the salt and light to those around us, even those who attack us, but moreover, it is a path to wholeness for ourselves. Our motivation is the helping the other.
In this time of great polarization in our world, our society, our nation, and those who worship God, this seems more timely and more difficult than ever. You might even say impossible. Yes, on one level it is, but Jesus was not merely giving us good advice. It is good news. “Jesus did it all himself, and opened up this new way of being human so that all who follow him can discover it.” (Wright, 52-3)
It was through Jesus’ words that Martin Luther King was inspired. He used them (along with the practices of Mahatma Gandhi) to develop the method of non-violence as a way of effective protest. Jesus gives us the thoughts and purposes of the biblical laws, and Dr. King put them into practice and made them relevant in our modern context. When others wanted to go the way of violence, he insisted on a plan to retaliate against evil with love.
Jesus does not want us to be a doormat. We are made in God’s image. That alone gives us value and worth. As a loved child of God, we have even more. Whatever value we have has been given to us. The question is how are we going to use it. Are we going to isolate and insulate ourselves, hoarding that value, or are we going to use it to help others gain it as well? We could arguable say that the ones that need it the most are the ones that seem the most evil, the ones that seem to attack us at every turn. It is not weak or soft to respond to that with love and generosity. It is not allowing someone else walk all over you. It is standing up. It is being salt and light. In fact, it takes great strength to love like that. Jesus did that all the way to the cross while we were yet sinners. There is no greater love than that.